The Short Second Life (Chapters 9)

"Trust me, we know the difficulties better than you. It is remarkable that you've managed to keep off the radar, so to speak, for this long. Tel me" – a hint of interest colored the monotone – "how are you doing it?"

Our creator hesitated, and then spoke al in a rush. Almost as if there had been some silent intimidation. "I haven't made the decision," she spit out. Then she added more slowly, unwil ingly, "To attack. I've never decided to do anything with them."

"Rough, but effective," the cloaked girl said. "Unfortunately, your period of deliberation has come to a close. You must decide – now – what you wil do with your little army." Both Diego's and my eyes widened at that word. "Otherwise, it wil be our duty to punish you as the law demands. This reprieve, however short, troubles me. It is not our way. I suggest you give us what assurances you can… quickly."

"We'l go at once!" Riley volunteered anxiously, and there was a sharp hiss.

"We'l go as soon as possible," our creator amended furiously. "There is much to do. I assume you wish us to succeed? Then I must have a little time to get them trained – instructed – fed!"

There was a short pause.

"Five days. We wil come for you then. And there is no rock you can hide under or speed at which you can flee that wil save you. If you have not made your attack by the time we come, you wil burn." This was said with no menace other than an absolute certainty.

"And if I have made my attack?" our creator asked, shaken.

"We'l see," the cloaked girl answered in a brighter tone than she'd used yet. "I suppose that al depends on how successful you are. Work hard to please us." The last command was given in a flat, hard pitch that made me feel a strange chil in the center of my body.

"Yes," our creator snarled.

"Yes," Riley echoed in a whisper.

A second later the cloaked vampires were noiselessly exiting the house. Neither Diego nor I so much as took a breath for five minutes after they'd disappeared. Inside the house, our creator and Riley were just as quiet. Another ten minutes passed in total stil ness.

I touched Diego's arm. This was our chance to get out of here. At the moment, I wasn't so afraid of Riley anymore. I wanted to get as far away as I could from those dark-cloaks. I wanted the safety of numbers waiting back in the log cabin, and I figured that was exactly how our creator felt, too. Why she'd made so many of us in the first place. There were some things out there scarier than I'd imagined.

Diego hesitated, stil listening, and a second later his patience was rewarded.

"Wel ," she whispered inside the house, "now they know."

Was she talking about the cloaks or the mysterious clan?

Which one was the enemy she'd mentioned before the drama?

"That doesn't matter. We outnumber – "

"Any warning matters!" she growled, cutting him off. "There is so much to do. Only five days!" She groaned. "No more messing around. You start tonight."

"I won't fail you!" Riley promised.

Crap. Diego and I moved at the same time, leaping from our perch into the next tree over, flying back the way we'd come. Riley was in a hurry now, and if he found Diego's trail after al that had just passed with the cloaks, and no Diego there at the end of it…

"I've got to get back and be waiting," Diego whispered to me as we raced. "Lucky it's not in view of the house! Don't want him to know I heard."

"We should talk to him together."

"Too late for that. He'd notice that your scent wasn't on the trail. Looks suspicious."

"Diego…" He'd trapped me into sitting this one out. We were back to the spot where he'd joined me. He spoke in a rushed whisper.

"Stick to the plan, Bree. I'l tel him what I planned to tel him. It's not close to dawn, but that's just how it has to be. If he doesn't believe me…" Diego shrugged. "He's got bigger things to worry about than me having an overactive imagination. Maybe he'l be more likely to listen now – looks like we need al the help we can get, and being able to move around in the day can't hurt."

"Diego…," I repeated, not knowing what else to say. He looked into my eyes, and I waited for his lips to twitch into that easy smile, for him to make some joke about ninjas or BFFs.

He didn't. Instead, he leaned in slowly, never moving his eyes from mine, and kissed me. His smooth lips pressed against mine for one long second while we stared at each other. Then he leaned away and sighed. "Get home, hide behind Fred, and act clueless. I'l be right behind you."

"Be careful."

I grabbed his hand and squeezed it hard, then let go. Riley had spoken of Diego affectionately. I would have to hope that affection was real. There wasn't another choice. Diego disappeared into the trees, quiet as a rustling breeze. I didn't waste time looking after him. I sprinted through the branches in a direct line back to the house. I hoped my eyes were stil bright enough from last night's meal to explain my absence. Just a quick hunt. Got lucky – found a lone hiker. Nothing out of the ordinary.

The sound of the thudding music that greeted my approach was accompanied by the unmistakable sweet, smoky scent of a burning vampire. My panic went into overdrive. I could just as easily die inside the house as outside. But there was no other way. I didn't slow, just rushed down the stairs straight to the corner where I could barely make out Freaky Fred standing. Looking for something to do? Tired of sitting? I had no idea what he was up to, and I didn't care. I would stick tight to him until Riley and Diego got back.

In the middle of the floor was a smoldering heap that was too big to be just a leg or an arm. So much for Riley's twentytwo. No one seemed terribly concerned about the smoking remains. The sight was too common.

As I hurried closer to Fred, for once the sense of disgust didn't get stronger. Instead, it faded. He didn't seem to notice me, just went on reading the book he held. One of those I'd left him a few days ago. I had no problem seeing what he was doing now that I was close to where he was leaning against the back of the couch. I hesitated, wondering why that was. Could he turn his nausea thing off when he wanted? Did that mean we both were unprotected right now? At least Raoul wasn't home yet, thankful y, though Kevin was.

For the first time ever, I real y saw what Fred looked like. He was tal, maybe six two, with the thick, curly blond hair I'd noticed once before. He was broad-shouldered and muscular. He looked older than most of the others – like a col ege student, not a high school kid. And – this was the part that surprised me most for some reason – he was good-looking. As handsome as anyone else, maybe even handsomer than most. I didn't know why that was so trippy for me. I guessed just because I always associated him with revulsion.

I felt weird for staring. I glanced quickly around the room to see if anyone had noticed that Fred was normal – and pretty – for the moment. No one was looking our way. I stole a fast peek at Kevin, ready to shift my focus at once if he noticed, but his eyes were concentrated on some point to the left of where we stood. He was frowning slightly. Before I could look away, his gaze skipped right over to me and settled on my right side. His frown deepened. Like… he was trying to see me and couldn't. I felt the corners of my mouth twitch into not quite a grin. There was too much to worry about to real y enjoy Kevin's blindness. I looked back at Fred, wondering if the gross-out factor would return, only to see that he was smiling with me. Smiling, he was real y spectacular.

Then the moment was over, and Fred went back to his book. I didn't move for a while, waiting for something to happen. For Diego to come through the door. Or Riley with Diego. Or Raoul. Or for the nausea to hit again, or for Kevin to glare in my direction, or for the next fight to break out. Something. When nothing did, I eventual y pul ed myself together and did what I should have been doing – pretending nothing unusual was going on. I grabbed a book from the pile near Fred's feet and then sat down right there and acted like I was reading. It was probably one of the same books I'd pretended to read yesterday, but it didn't look familiar. I flipped through the pages, again taking nothing in.

My mind was racing around in tight little circles. Where was Diego? How had Riley reacted to his story? What had it al meant – the talk before the cloaks, the talk after the cloaks?

I worked through it, going backward, trying to assemble the pieces into a recognizable picture. The vampire world had some kind of police, and they were damn scary. This wild group of months-old vampires was supposed to be an army, and this army was somehow il egal. Our creator had an enemy. Strike that, two enemies. We were going to attack one of them in five days, or else the other ones, the scary cloaks, were going to attack her – or us, or both. We would be trained for this attack…

as soon as Riley got back. I snuck a glance at the door, then forced my eyes back to the page in front of me. And then the stuff before the visitors. She was worrying about some decision. She was pleased that she had so many vampires – so many soldiers. Riley was happy that Diego and I had survived…. He'd said he thought he'd lost two more to the sun, so that must mean he didn't know how vampires really reacted to sunlight. What she'd said was strange, though. She'd asked if he was sure. Sure Diego had survived? Or… sure that Diego's story was true?

The last thought frightened me. Did she already know that the sun didn't hurt us? If she did know, then why had she lied to Riley and, through him, to us?

Why would she want to keep us in the dark – literal y? Was it very important to her that we stay ignorant? Important enough to get Diego in trouble? I was working myself into a real panic, frozen solid. If I stil could sweat, I would have been sweating now. I had to refocus to turn the next page, to keep my eyes down.

Was Riley deceived, or was he in on it, too? When Riley'd said he thought he'd lost two more to the sun, did he mean the sun literal y… or the lie about the sun?

If it was the second option, then to know the truth meant being lost. Panic scattered my thoughts. I tried to be rational and make sense of it. It was harder without Diego. Having someone to talk to, to interact with, sharpened my ability to concentrate. Without that, fear sucked at the edges of my thoughts, twisted with the always-present thirst. The lure of blood was constantly close to the surface. Even now, decently wel fed, I could feel the burn and the need. Think about her, think about Riley, I told myself. I had to understand why they would lie – if they were lying – so that I could try to figure out what it would mean to them that Diego knew their secret.

If they hadn't lied, if they'd just told us al that the day was as safe for us as the night, how would that change things? I imagined what it would be like if we didn't have to be contained in a blacked-out basement al day, if the twenty-one of us – maybe fewer now, depending on how the hunting parties were getting along – were free to do what we wanted whenever we wanted to.

We would want to hunt. That was a given.

If we didn't have to come back, if we didn't have to hide…

wel, many of us wouldn't come back very regularly. It was hard to focus on the return while the thirst was in charge. But Riley had dril ed so deeply into al of us the threat of burning, of a return of that hideous pain we'd al experienced once. That was the reason we could stop ourselves. Self-preservation, the only instinct stronger than thirst.

So the threat kept us together. There were other hiding places, like Diego's cave, but who else thought about that kind of thing? We had a place to go, a base, so we went to it. Clear heads were not a vampire specialty. Or, at least, they weren't the specialty of young vampires. Riley was clearheaded. Diego was more clearheaded than I was. Those cloaked vampires were terrifyingly focused. I shuddered. So the routine wouldn't control us forever. What would they do when we were older, clearer? It struck me that nobody was older than Riley. Everyone here was new. She needed a bunch of us now for this mystery enemy. But what about afterward?

I had a strong feeling that I didn't want to be around for that part. And I suddenly realized something stupendously obvious. It was the solution that had tickled the edges of my understanding before, when I was tracking the vampire herd to this place with Diego.

I didn't have to be around for that part. I didn't have to be around for one more night.

I was a statue again as I thought over this stunning idea. If Diego and I hadn't known where the gang was most likely headed, would we ever have found them? Probably not. And that was a big group leaving a wide trail. What if it were a single vampire, one who could leap up onto the land, maybe into a tree, without leaving a trail at the edge of the water…. Just one, or maybe two vampires who could swim as far out to sea as they wanted… Who could return to land anywhere… Canada, California, Chile, China…

You would never be able to find those two vampires. They would be gone. Disappeared like they'd gone up in smoke. We didn't have to come back the other night! We shouldn't have! Why hadn't I thought of it then?

But… would Diego have agreed? I was abruptly not so sure of myself. Was Diego more loyal to Riley after al ? Would he have felt it was his responsibility to stand by Riley? He'd known Riley a lot longer – he'd real y only known me a day. Was he closer to Riley than he was to me?

I pondered that, frowning.

Wel, I would find out as soon as we had a minute alone. And then maybe, if our secret club real y meant something, it wouldn't matter what our creator had planned for us. We could disappear, and Riley would have to make do with nineteen vampires, or make some new ones quick. Either way, not our problem.

I couldn't wait to tel Diego my plan. My gut instinct was that he would feel the same. Hopeful y.

Suddenly, I wondered if this was what had real y happened to Shel y and Steve and the other kids who had disappeared. I knew they hadn't burned in the sun. Had Riley only claimed he'd seen their ashes as another way to keep the rest of us afraid and dependent on him? Returning home to him every dawn?

Maybe Shel y and Steve had just set off on their own. No more Raoul. No enemies or armies threatening their immediate future.

Maybe that's what Riley had meant by lost to the sun. Runaways. In which case, he'd be happy that Diego hadn't bailed, right?

If only Diego and I had taken off! We could be free, too, like Shel y and Steve. No rules, no fear of the sunrise. Again, I imagined the whole horde of us on the loose without a curfew. I could see Diego and me moving like ninjas through the shade. But I could also see Raoul, Kevin, and the rest, sparkling disco-bal monsters in the center of a busy downtown street, the bodies piling up, the screaming, the helicopters whirring, the soft, helpless cops with their dinky little bul ets that wouldn't make a dent, the cameras, the panic that would spread so fast as the pictures bounced swiftly around the globe. Vampires wouldn't be a secret for very long. Even Raoul couldn't kil people fast enough to keep the story from spreading.

There was a chain of logic here, and I tried to grasp it before I could be distracted again.

One, humans didn't know about vampires. Two, Riley encouraged us to be inconspicuous, not to attract the notice of humans and educate them otherwise. Three, Diego and I had decided that al vampires must be fol owing that guideline, or else the world would know about us. Four, they must have a reason for doing so, and it wasn't the little popguns of the human police that motivated them. Yeah, the reason must be pretty important to make al vampires hide al day long in stuffy basements. Maybe reason enough to make Riley and our creator lie to us, terrify us about the burning sun. Maybe it was a reason Riley would explain to Diego, and since it was so important and he was so responsible, Diego would promise to keep the secret and they would be cool with that. Sure they would. But what if what actual y happened to Shel y and Steve was that they'd discovered the shiny skin thing and not run?

What if they'd gone to Riley?

And, crap, there went the next step in my logical path. The chain dissolved and I started panicking about Diego again. As I stressed, I realized that I'd been thinking things through for a while. I could feel dawn coming on. No more than an hour away. So where was Diego? Where was Riley?

As I thought this, the door opened and Raoul leaped down the stairs, laughing with his buddies. I hunched down, leaning closer to Fred. Raoul didn't notice us. He looked at the crispyfried vampire in the center of the floor and laughed harder. His eyes were bril iant red.

On the nights Raoul went hunting, he never came home til he had to. He would keep feeding as long as he could. So dawn must have been even closer than I'd thought.

Riley must have demanded that Diego prove his words. That was the only explanation. And they were waiting for the dawn. Only… that would mean that Riley didn't know the truth, that our creator was lying to him, too. Or did it? My thoughts twisted up again.

Kristie showed up minutes later with three of her gang. She reacted indifferently to the pile of ashes. I did a quick head count as two more hunters hurried through the door. Twenty vampires. Everyone was home except Diego and Riley. The sun would rise at any moment.

The door at the top of the basement stairs creaked as someone opened it. I sprang to my feet.

Riley entered. He shut the door behind him. He walked down the stairs.

No one fol owed.